sample-visa-denial-letter.jpgI’m no fan of the U.S. Department of State’s policies and actions in the immigration space.  State’s approach, as manifested by the behavior of U.S. consular officers and the apparatchiks within the Visa Office at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, too often comes off as a mix of treacly haughtiness and callous indifference.

These Ugly American attributes are the foreseeable consequence of the grant of unbridled power. Straight-shooters call this power “consular absolutism“ while the decorous dub it “consular nonreviewability.” First established as a temporary, war-time measure in 1918 and then incorporated into current law by a McCarthy-era Congress that overrode President Truman’s veto in 1952, the power of a single consular officer to determine the facts and refuse a U.S. visa cannot be overruled; not by the courts, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State or the President.

To be sure, sometimes State does the right thingKudos to Hillary Clinton for using the immigration law to promote U.S. foreign policy objectives, as she did recently in allowing consuls to grant Iranian students multiple-entry two year visas, thereby supporting the Iranian people over their goverment. At other times, however, State stumbles and the hopes of countless innocent folks crash. Consider, for example, State’s recent flubbing of the visa lottery selection process. Other pratfalls happen all too often, none more noticeably than missteps advertised in a much-watched State online resource, the Visa Bulletin.  Obscure to most Americans, the Bulletin tells watchfully waiting immigrants and their sponsors (American families and firms) how much or little, if at all, the “cut-off date” on the immigrant visa (green card) quota will move forward in the next month. 

The movement of the immigrant visa quota is less a math formula than a guesstimate.  A well-intentioned and competent State Department official analyzes reports of immigrant visa usage by consular officers (this is the easy, mathematical part), then grapples with the hard part — the unpredictable flows of green-card issuance data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — and then tries to estimate the rate and volume of future USCIS grants of green cards (adjustments of status, or AOS).  The problem is that AOS grants are approved at several locations (the USCIS regional service centers and field offices and the courtrooms of the DOJ’s Immigration Judges). 

Although Congress contemplates a FIFO (first-in, first-out) quota system under Immigration and Nationality Act §203(e), seasoned observers have reason to believe that what really happens behind the scenes at USCIS is much more of a catch-as-catch-can system. AOS files are housed and distributed helter-skelter in a USCIS salt-mine storage facility in the midwest, regional service centers, ICE attorney file cabinets or shopping carts wheeled between immigration courtrooms, and USCIS field offices.  Although a recent lawsuit and motion for preliminary injunction in Seattle federal court challenging the immigrant visa (IV) quota allocation system failed, apparently for reasons urged by the government, this has not stopped ever-louder public complaints.

In recent years, the quotas dramatically and unexpectedly moved backward (retrogressed) twice  – in 2007 under the employment-based immigrant visa categories, and in January this year under the family categories — thus adding years more to the wait.  Although this might please the anti-immigration crowd that crows about the supposed honor of doing things legally by “waiting in line” (while silently celebrating that law-abiding immigrants are kept out), it hurts American interests.  American families are needlessly separated and the ability of U.S.businesses to compete on the global stage is hamstrung, while immigrant innovations that might have been are needlessly delayed or never happen.

Much of this harm could be avoided or lessened by President Obama, and virtually all of it could be eliminated by a willing, America-first Congress.

The President could take a lesson from Disneyland and the airlines — businesses that know something about people waiting in lines.  These businesses know that opportunities for profit and reduction of complaints can arise even while customers wait (see Disney’s techniques here and here; see airlines’ approaches here).

  • For intending immigrants waiting abroad, President Obama could remind State and its consular corps that wannabe green card holders, despite their desire to immigrate, are still eligible under law for all manner of nonimmigrant visas, and should be granted such status liberally in deserving cases.  I’m not talking about the misnomer that many immigration agencies and uninformed immigration lawyers call “dual intent” visas, as they refer to the H-1B and L-1 temporary categories (which are more accurately described as intent-irrelevant classifications).  No I’m referring to the true dual-intent categories, such as business visitors, tourists, students, exchange visitors and trainees).  The courts and immigration precedent decisions have long ago recognized that a visa applicant or nonimmigrant entrant can have a short-term intention to enter the U.S. presently, yet harbor the desire and intent to attain green card status when and if the law and the factual circumstances so permit, as long as the individual’s overriding intention is to be law-abiding.  If the person, by prior conduct in compliance with immigration law and compelling ties abroad, has an intention to immigration in the future but no intention to break the law by overstaying the period of admission or violating immigration status, then s/he has legitimate dual intent (see cases cited, FN 51).
  • The President could also tighten the reigns on the State Department by instructing the Secretary of Homeland Security to exert the superior authority granted her over immigration matters abroad under the Homeland Security Act, thereby cabining any rogue behavior by State’s consular officers. 
  • For law-abiding nonimmigrants in the U.S., he could — as I noted in my last post — take executive actions that would allow early filing (but not accelerated approval) of green card applications by persons with approved immigrant visa petitions (which would allow international travel and continuing employment permission) and administratively freeze the age of minor children as of the date AOS is filed. 

Our feckless Congress — if they truly cared about American jobs, competitiveness and deficit reduction more than political posturing and electioneering — could also make worthy changes in our national interests:

  • Congress could also accomplish legislatively all of the outcomes noted above that concurrently fall within the authority of the President.
  • Congress could set an example to other countries by putting reasonable procedural due process constraints on consular officers and allowing at least meaningful administrative review and a clear right to in-person legal counsel at visa interviews and administrative hearings.
  • Congress could reap significant revenue by allowing quota line-jumping for a hefty premium fee. You may say this would be unAmerican, but we already allow premium processing at USCIS and provide wealthy investors with faster access to green cards (EB-5 visas) and nonimmigrant visas (E-2 and L-1A) by tendering legal tender.  We live in a capitalist state where theatres, sports teams and concert venues sell premium seats, airlines have first class cabins, and as Ernest Hemingway astutely observed in a misquote of an F. Scott Fitzgerald line: (Fitzgerald: “The rich are different than you and me.” Hemingway: “Yes, they have more money.”)

If you doubt the wisdom of better customer service for immigrants, consider the following excerpt from an unsolicited email I received from a foreign citizen (whose identity will not be revealed) in response to a three-part teleconference series I’m moderating next week (Illuminating the Dark Ages: Disturbing Trends and Pleasing Solutions in Employment Based Immigration):

I tried to get some help from 11 lawyers. Not a single one accepted. One told me that being in the US was a “privilege” and not a “right”. Another one warned me about any action that could irritate the immigration service. The others just answered – when they answered – by one sentence: you have no possibility because there is still two years before your priority date.

As of today, I am still struggling. Why? Because:

- I want to get back to my career

- I want to achieve a degree at the University

- I want to open a business

- I want to buy my apartment

- I have hired 15 American citizens since I am a manager in my company and I think I am not a charge for anybody in the U.S.

But as you guess, I am the only one to believe that I will succeed.

I will conclude my message here, I thought that this story could be an illustration of the precarity of people like me, and I want to mention than I had never felt such a climate of rejection, suspicion and even in some cases, hostility, until this past few months. I had always felt very happy to live in the U.S. Today, the situation has created a daily anxiety, fear for the future and feeling that I am not welcome anymore.

Thank you for your reading.